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13. S., Concordia Teachers College, 1970 
M.L.S., Emporia State University, 1972 


submitted in partial fulfillment of the 

requirements for the degree 


College of Arts and Sciences 

Manhattan, Kansas 


i. ' 

Approved by: 
Major Professor 

A112D7 303^81 

Jane Austen, Marriage, and Emma 

Jane Austen's novel Emma opens with a scene in which 
Emma Woodhouse and her father consider the effects of the 
marriage of Emma's long-time governess, Hiss Taylor, to Mr. 
Weston. As the story progresses Emma encourages Harriet 
Smith to reject the proposal of Robert Martin, tries to 
promote a marriage between Harriet and Mr. Elton, and 
rejects a marriage proposal from Mr. Elton. Emma fantasizes 
about a marriage between herself and Frank Churchill, and 
then between Frank Churchill and Harriet Smith. Emma also 
observes and meditates on the marriages around her, 
especially those of the Eltons, the Uestons, and the John 
Knightleys. The novel concludes with the September wedding 
of Harriet Smith and Robert Martin, the October wedding of 
Emma and Mr. George Knightley, and the anticipated wedding 
of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill in November. 

Clearly marriages and talk of marriages pervade this 
novel. And when we take into account both the number of 
marriages at the novel's end and the novel's account of the 
alternatives to marriage available to a young woman of the 
class from which Jane Austen and most of her original 


readers came --to remain dependent upon her family as an 
"old maid" or to attempt to earn a meager salary as a 
governess — we might conclude that the novel is, at least in 
part, a tract urging all to marry. But Austen is, in fact, 
ambivalent about marriage. This ambivalence is present in 
Emma's thinking about marriage. Although Emma is eager to 
do what she can to facilitate the marriages of others, she 
resists the idea that she should marry. When the novel 
opens, Emma's observations of the marriages of others have 
led her to the conclusion that none of the couples have what 
she would want for herself in a marriage. This ambivalence 
is, no doubt, partly the result of Emma's self-delusions. 
But it also owes much to the problems which Jane Austen saw 
with the institution of marriage. If, as I shall argue, 
Emma's conclusions are accurate reflections of Austen's own 
opinion of marriage and most marriages, why does Austen 
nevertheless end the novel by having Emma marry Mr. 
Knightley? The reader of the novel might well like to ask 
Jane Austen a question similar to Emma's when she asked her 
father, "My dear papa, you are no friend of matrimony and 

therefore why should you be so anxious to pay your respects 

to a bride?" 

In order to try to answer this question, I will first 

examine the novel itself to determine what Emma thinks and 

says about marriage. What does Emma consider as she 

evaluates the marriaqes of others and what she would want in 


her own marriage? What qualities does she think are desir- 
able in a mate? Next, I will look at Austen's presentation 
of both Emma and Mr. Knightley. Since Emma is the story's 
heroine and Mr. Knightley is revealed to be her ideal 
husband, we might expect them to embody those qualitites 
which Austen thought essential to mature adults. Therefore, 
what qualities does Austen ascribe to them? What does she 
see as necessary to the "oerfect happiness of the union"? 

After examining Emma , I will consider what we can 
determine about Austen's opinion of marriage through a 
reading of her surviving letters. Her letters to her sister 
Cassandra reveal that Austen was an astute observer of those 
around her and she was aware of the interests and concerns 
of women in their everyday lives. Of special interest are 
several letters from Austen to her niece Fanny Knight in 
which Austen replies to Fanny's requests for advice. 
Austen's responses reveal the qualities she considered 
important in the younq men. Her advice to Fanny is similar 
to Emma's advice to Harriet. This suggests that Austen's 
letters and other information about the historical context 
of Emma can be used to further illuminate the discussion of 
marriage in the novel. 

Finally, I will consider the problematic ending of the 
novel--whether the marriaqe of Emma and Mr. Knightley 
conflicts with the presentation of marriaqe in the novel. 
The appropriateness of the marriage will be examined in 


terns of various ways of readinq the novel. If the novel is 
seen primarily as a comedy, the formal ending, the marriaqe 
of the hero and heroine, the resolution of conflict is 
appropriate. However, many readers have found the ending 
inappropriate. They see the realistic elements of the novel 
as more significant than its comic genre; therefore, they 
believe that Emma's reward is much greater than she deserves 
because of her immature behavior. Such a reaction to the 
ending ignores the theme of the novel — Emma's maturation and 
realization of her proper role in society. In this context 
their marriage night be seen as an appropriate indicator of 
the mature relationship achieved by Emma and Mr. Knightley. 
But whether Jane Austen really believed that the marriage 
would result in "perfect happiness" is another question. 
Austen's handling of the story's endinq suggests that she 
does not take the "fairy tale" ending seriously as a 
guarantee of "perfect happiness" in the future for a real 
George Knightley and Emma Woodhouse, and that the reader 
should know enouqh of real life not to believe it either. 


As mentioned previously, Emma opens with Emma and Mr. 
Woodhouse thinking about the marriaqe of Miss Taylor and Mr. 
Weston. Most of their thoughts are negative. For both of 
them, this negative response is not so much to the institu- 
tion of marriage as it is to the changes which follow 
marriage. To Mr. Woodhouse, matrimony, as the origin of 
change, is always disagreeable, since he is alarmed by any 
kind of change (7). Emma, although she is able to recognize 
the "promise of happiness for her friend" (6), regrets that 
the marriage will deprive her of Miss Taylor's companion- 
sh ip . 

But Emma does not tell her father of her regrets. 
Instead, she tries to cheer them both up by enumerating good 
things about the marriage. She reminds her father that the 
Weston's will be living near to them and that Mr. Weston is 
a fine man. When Mr. Knightley joins them, he reinforces 
these more positive thoughts. He reminds them, "The 
marriage is to Miss Taylor's advantage; QlmmaJ knows how 
very acceotable it must be at Miss Taylor's time of life to 
be settled in a hone of her own, and how important to her to 
be secure in a comfortable provision" (11). Thus, early in 
the novel, the economic importance of marriage for a woman 
is emphasized. This was, as W. A. Craik has pointed out, a 
time when there were "no social services, no insurance 
schemes, no national medical care, no pension schemes for 
sickness or old age" (94). A woman, especially a woman with 


no income or property of her own, which must have been the 
case with the former governess, had to rely on her husband 
to provide economic security for her old age. 

The position of Miss Taylor is contrasted with that of 
Mr. Weston. While it is vital for Miss Taylor to marry 
someone who can contribute to her financial security, the 
narrator, presumably relating Emma's thinking, asserts that 
Mr. Weston does not need to make such a consideration. He 
is fortunate enough to have succeeded to "a small 
independence" early in life (15). Although his first 
marriage (to Miss Churchill, a young woman with a fortune of 
her own) left Mr. Weston "rather a poorer man than at 
first," in the years following his first wife's death he has 
"realized an easy competence" and therefore he can marry a 
woman "as portionless even as Miss Taylor" (16). 

Although Mr. Weston does not need to consider the 
financial position of the woman he decides to marry, Emma is 
aware of the fact that not all men have such fortunate 
financial situations. The situations of Mr. Elton and 
Robert Martin are more the norm. Emma eventually 
understands that Mr. Elton is typical of the many young men 
who need to use their assets to increase their economic 
positions. Mr. Knightley, who always perceives him 
correctly, describes Mr. Elton's intentions accurately when 
he tells Emma that Mr. Elton "knows the value of a good 
income as well as anybody "( 66 ) ; Mr. Knightley predicts that 


Mr. Elton will not "throw himself away" on a woman with a 
small dowry (66). Emma slowly realizes that Mr. Knightley is 
correct, that Mr. Elton wants to marry her "to aggrandize 
and enrich himself" (135), and that after she, an heiress of 
thirty thousand pounds, rejects his proposal, he will look 
for "Miss Somebody else with twenty, or with ten" (135). 
Mr. Elton does exactly that; after Emma rejects his 
proposal, he goes to Bath. When he returns to Highbury he 
has secured an engagement to Miss Augusta Hawkins, a young 
woman "in possession of an independent fortune, of so many 
thousands as would always be called ten" (181). His wife's 
fortune improves his financial position as well as his 
social status. 

Robert Martin's situation is seen by Emma as being 
different from that of either Mr. Weston or Mr. Elton. Mr. 
Weston's financial security was the result of an 
inheritance; Mr. Elton's came from his wife's dowry and 
social connections. Robert Martin, a farmer and, therefore, 
of a lower social class, needs to consider how much dowry 
his wife might bring even more than Mr. Elton does — or so 
Emma believes. When she is trying to discourage Harriet's 
interest in Robert Martin, Emma suggests that, at the age of 
24, he is too young to be thinking of marrying. Emma 
suggests that it will be another six years before he will be 
financially secure enough to marry. Then, if he should meet 
a suitable young woman, it might be possible for him to 


think of marrying, for "that is as early as most men can 
afford to marry, who are not born to an independence" (30). 
Emma's representation of Robert Martin's position is later 
revealed to be inaccurate, since Mr. Knightley assures Emma 
that Martin proved to him that he could afford to marry 
Harriet; however, Emma's facts about the usual situation for 
most young men of Robert Martin's age and class are, as we 
shall see, probably accurate. 

The financial position of a possible marriage partner 
is usually closely correlated with the person's social 
status. Emma's friendship with Harriet Smith makes her 
realize the importance of the social rank of both parties in 
the marriage. Harriet is "the natural daughter of somebody" 
(22), which means that her social status, which depends 
primarily on the class of her unknown father, is difficult 
to determine. Emma wishes to think Harriet's father was a 
gentleman so that Harriet is entitled to command a social 
position similar to Emma's own. Because she wants Harriet 
firmly established in her own class by marriage, Emma 
discourages Harriet's interest in Robert Martin and 
encourages her to consider Mr. Elton. In Emma's thinking: 
"Mr. Elton's situation was most suitable, quite the 
gentleman himself, and without low connections; and at the 
same time not of any family that could fairly object to the 
doubtful birth of Harriet" (35). 

Emma believes that her patronage, the possibility that 


Harriet's father is a gentleman, and Harriet's own looks and 
personality will be sufficient to secure for Harriet a 
"good" marriage, a marriage with a man of the gentry class. 
Emma's conclusion, which might seem to result from her 
snobbishness and her exaggerated faith in her own powers, is 
not justified; however, her assumption about the importance 
of social class is not condemned by Mr. Knightley who, 
although he has different ideas from Emma's as to whom 
Harriet should marry, is in agreement with Emma on the 
importance of the social status of the possible marriage 
partner. Mr. Knightley suggests to Emma that it will not be 
easy for Harriet to marry a gentleman because he considers 
Harriet to have few claims "either of birth, nature, or 
education" (61). He says, "Men of family would not be very 
fond of connecting themselves with a girl of such 
obscurity — and most prudent men would be afraid of the 
inconvenience and disgrace they might be involved in, when 
the mystery of her parentage came to be revealed" (64). 
Mr. Knightley further supports Emma's concern with 
social class by his position endorsing a marriage between 
Harriet Smith and Robert Martin. Since Mr. Knightley does 
not believe Emma is correct in supposing Harriet's father to 
be a gentleman, he approves of Robert Martin's proposal to 
Harriet. Mr. Knightley tells Emma, "The advantage of the 
match I felt to be all on her side and had not the smallest 
doubt (nor have I now) that there would be a general cry-out 


upon her extreme good luck" (61). He feels that Robert 
Martin is superior to Harriet in social class as well as 
character . 

Thus, although he does show an awareness of the 
importance of social status, Mr. Knightley's position 
demonstrates that Emma's views may indeed be limited by her 
snobbishness. Mr. Knightley, in his endorsement of Robert 
Martin's proposal to Harriet, considers more than just 
status. He also appraises the two individuals involved. 
When Emma suggests that it would be degrading for Harriet to 
marry Robert Martin, Mr. Knightley replies that he does not 
see how it can be degrading for "illegitimacy and ignorance 
to be married to a respectable, intelligent gentleman 
farmer" (62), significantly labeling him with a term 
emphasizing the positive qualities that Mr. Knightley thinks 
Robert Martin shares with the gentry. He says, "Robert 
Martin's manners have sense, sincerity, and good humour to 
recommend them; and his mind has more true gentility than 
Harriet Smith could understand" (65). Mr. Knightley is 
aware of class distinctions but his description of Robert 
Martin suggests that for him character is more important 
than social class. 

Although she may consider the issues of economics and 
status to be more important than Mr. Knightley sees them, 
Emma does also evaluate the man's character and personality. 
Emma encourages Harriet to consider Mr. Elton because he is 


"good humoured, cheerful, obliging, and gentle" (34). Emma 
thinks Mr. Elton would be a good husband for Harriet because 
he is good-humoured, well-meaning, respectable, and "without 
any deficiency of useful understanding or knowledge of the 
world" (35). He is also "really a very pleasing young man," 
who is "reckoned very handsome, his person much admired in 
general" (35). While this evaluation of Mr. Elton is 
inaccurate because at the time it was made Emma was seeing 
in him many of the characteristics she wants to believe are 
there, it does point up traits which Emma has good reason to 
think any husband ought to have. The obliging and gentle 
qualities she wants to think Mr. Elton has are qualities 
which she values in her father. Good humor is a quality 
which she finds lacking in her valetudinarian father, "a 
nervous man, easily depressed" (7), and in John Knightley, 
her brother-in-law. Although she always seems to treat her 
father with kindness and patience, Emma must find Mr. 
Woodhouse's temperament very trying at times. There are 
also many occasions when she becomes annoyed with her 
brother-in-law because he is "capable of being sometimes out 
of humour" (92); in Emma's opinion, though he is "not an 
ill-tempered man, not so often cross as to deserve such a 
reproach . . . his temper was not his great perfection" 
(92). Therefore, it is not surprising that Emma suggests to 
her father that Mr. Weston deserves a good wife because "he 
is such a good-humoured, pleasant, excellent man" (8). 


Emma's standard, although she is unaware of it for 
most of the novel, is the man destined to be her husband, 
Mr. George Knightley. As his name suggests, Mr. Knightley 
is the ideal mate for the story's heroine, embodying those 
traits which Emma (and Jane Austen) feel the ideal husband 
ought to have. Mr. Knightley does not have the "reserved 
manners" which prevent his brother from being generally 
pleasing; he clearly enjoys the social contact which he 
maintains with those in and around Highbury. He continually 
brings into the daily life of Highbury "the spirit of 
chivalry" (Duckworth 156). Unlike Mr. Elton, he is almost 
always "kind, tolerant, generous, dignified, resolute, right 
in judgment, and clear about motives" (Bennett 250). Emma 
is clearly comparing Frank Churchill to Mr. Knightley when 
she decides that Frank lacks "that upright integrity, that 
strict adherence to truth and principle, that disdain of 
tricks and littleness which a man should display in every 
transaction of his life" (397). Where Frank Churchill 
displays an "indifference to a confusion of rank" (198), Mr. 
Knightley maintains a better balance. Although he does not 
completely disregard social rank, Mr. Knightley is concerned 
with intrinsic human worth; he is more interested in the 
person than the position. Because of his jealousy of Frank 
Churchill, Mr. Knightley is not quite a paragon of reason 
and virtue, but, as James Bennett suggests, "he comes close" 


The two characteristics which both Emma and Mr. 
Knightley seem to find desirable in either sex are openness 
and elegance. Openness is a quality ascribed to Mr. Weston 
and Robert Martin. Mr. Knightley approves of Robert Martin 
because Martin "always speaks to the purpose; open, straight 
forward, and very well judging" (59). It is a quality which 
Mr. Elton, Frank Churchill, and the dour John Knightley 
lack. When Emma censures Frank for his lack of integrity, 
his failure to adhere to truth and principle, and his 
pleasure in deception, she is criticizing his lack of 
openness. Both Emma and Mr. Knightley also note the lack of 
this quality in Jane Fairfax. Mr. Knightley comments that 
Jane "has not the open temper which a man would wish for in 
a wife" (288). Mr. Knightley prefers Emma's candor and 
frankness, just as she prefers his "disdain of tricks." 

Both also consider elegance a very important trait. To 
Austen, "elegance" referred to more than the modern sense of 
the word as the superficial appearance of a person or 
object. When Austen used the term she was probably also 
referring to an outlook and cast of mind, a quality we might 
describe as sensitivity to others and to one's proper place 
in the order of society. Elegance cannot be attained by the 
simple-minded Harriet Smith. Mrs. Elton can achieve only a 
facade of true elegance. Emma's first impression of Mrs. 
Elton — a judgment which proves to be correct — is that "her 
person was rather good; her face not unpretty; but neither 


feature, nor air, nor voice, nor manner, were elegant" 
(270). Mr. Elton and Frank Churchill also lack elegance. 
Frank's lack is shown, for example, when the party at the 
Crown is being planned. At this time Emma decides that 
Frank's "indifference to a confusion of rank, bordered too 
much on inelegance of mind" (198). For these reasons, 
Joseph Wiesenfarth suggests that until late in the novel, 
true elegance is found only in Mr. Knightley, in his "keen 
judgment of character, genuine English amiability, and 
straightforward humane action" ( " Emma : Point Counter Point" 
210). Although Emma initially judges Jane Fairfax "very 
elegant, remarkably elegant" (167) and clearly also sees 
herself as elegant, Wiesenfarth suggests that both Emma and 
Jane gain true elegance only after they overcome the 
mistakes they make with respect to their courtships and are 
able to gain a wider perspective on their proper roles in 
society (210). 

The physical appearance of the young man seems to be 
low on the list of things to be considered. Emma was 
initially impressed with Mr. Elton's appearance, and 
although he did not quite measure up to her standard for 
herself--"there being a want of elegance of feature which 
she could not dispense with" (35) — she felt that Harriet 
would be satisfied. Frank Churchill's appearance also 
impresses Emma. When they first meet, she thinks him a 
" very good looking young man," whose height, air, and 


address were all unexceptionable (190). Emma eventually 
decides that both Fir. Elton and Frank Churchill lack 
elements of character which she considers important and that 
qood looks are not sufficient to make up for their 
deficiencies. Siqnif icant ly, little is said about Mr. 
Knightley's appearance; it is his character which is 
portrayed. Emma eventually realizes that how the man looks 
is secondary to what he is. 

Just as Emma is at first uncertain of how important 
physical appearance ought to be, so she is long ambivalent 
as to the role love ought to play. Love is mentioned in 
several of the relationships. For example, when she is 
trying to arrange a match between Mr. Elton and Harriet 
Smith, Emma deludedly perceives Mr. Elton as "being in the 
fairest way of falling in love" with Harriet (42) and acting 
in a manner which "had a vast deal of the lover" in it (43). 
Mr. Knightley says that Robert Martin is "riesnerately in 
love Lyrith Harriet] and means to marry her" (59). Of the 
relationship between John and Isabella Knightley, Mr. 
Knightley says, "John loves Isabella with a reasonable and 
therefore not a blind affection" (40). Mr. Knightley 
observes to Mrs. Weston: "[Emma] always declares she will 
never marry, which, of course, means just nothing at all. 
But I have no idea that she has yet ever seen a man she 
cared for. It would not be a had thing for her to be very 
much in love with a proper object" (41). Emma makes a 


similar observation when she tells Harriet that she does not 
plan to marry. Emma says: "Were I to fall in love, indeed 
it would be a different thing! but I have never been in 
love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I 
ever shall, and without love I am sure I should be a fool to 
change such a situation as mine" (84). 

Although they recognize the existence of romantic love, 
Emma and Mr. Knightley disagree as to how important it is in 
marriage. For example, when she is laboring under romantic 
delusions, Emma believes that Mr. Elton may decide to marry 
Harriet, in spite of Harriet's lack of wealth and position. 
Mr. Knightley, however, speaking with the voice of reason 
rather than of emotion, warns Emma that though Mr. Elton 
"may talk sentimentally ... he will act rationally," and 
that he is "not at all likely to make an imprudent match" 
(66). Emma's response is to maintain that Mr. Knightley 
does not "make due allowance for the influence of a strong 
passion at war with all interested motives" (67). Thus they 
are both sure that love may play a part, but they are not in 
agreement as to how significant that part is. 

While they may recognize its existence, both Emma and 
Mr. Knightley seem to distrust romantic love. They believe 
that romantic love can cause a person to ignore rank and 
income when choosing a spouse, that it has the power to move 
an individual to actions and behavior which contradict the 
person's reason and might even be contrary to that person's 


best interests. The secret engagement of Jane Fairfax and 
Frank Churchill is typical of what happens when one is 
overcome by love. Emma and Mr. Knightley believe that 
Jane's love for Frank causes her to go against her better 
judgment and consent to a secret engagement, a decision 
which even Jane herself later regrets. 

Emma is definitely distrustful of other effects of 
being in love as well. She seems to believe that a person 
in love feels "confusion, bewilderment, fatigue, tension and 
hardship" (Barbara Hardy 51). When Emma examines her 
feelings about Frank Churchill she decides: "This sensation 
of listlessness , weariness, stupidity, this disinclination 
to sit down and employ myself, this feeling of everything's 
being dull and insipid about the house! — I must be in love" 
(262). However, upon more self-examination, "it struck her 
that she could not be very much in love" because "a strong 
attachment certainly must produce more of a struggle than 
she could forsee in her own feelings" (264). She concludes: 
"He is not really necessary to my happiness. So much the 
better. I certainly will not persuade myself to feel more 
than I do. I am quite enough in love. I should be sorry to 
be more" (264-65). Emma is, in fact, relieved to find that 
she is not more emotionally involved. She thinks: "I shall 
do very well again after a little while — and then, it will 
be a good thing over; for they say everybody is in love once 
in their lives, and I shall have been let off easily" (265). 


Emma seems only to want to enjoy the emotion for a little 
while and then to return to the security of a more rational 
life, a life controlled more by reason and less by emotion. 

Emma (in the description Jane Austen explicitly gives 
the reader) does not seem to feel passion for Mr. Kniqht- 
ley — at least not the violent emotion modern readers miqht 
expect her to feel for her beloved. It may be that Emma 
would have felt such emotions, but, as Fay Weldon suqqests, 
Jane Austen, writing in accordance with the conventions of 
her time, simply did not describe them (25). The author 
does, however, manage to imply that there is deep feelinq 
between Emma and Mr. Knightley. Juliet McMaster, in Jane 
Austen on Love , says that in all of Austen's novels, "the 
sexual aspect of courtship is suggested rather than 
described" (67); nevertheless, there is ample evidence of 
the pleasure in proximity and contact which the heroines 
enjoy with the men they love (71). In Emma , as John Hardy 
points out, "One cannot miss the genuine feeling that flows 
through so many of Emma's exchanges with Knightley" (105). 

All of this suggests that Emma, although she has some 
ideas about the qualities desirable in a husband, is not 
sure which are most important. She recognizes that most 
women need to marry for economic security, but she also 
realizes that marryinq for money does not quarantee 
happiness in the marriaqe. Emma would prefer to have the 
couple marry because they are in love, but she knows that 


love doesn't pay the bills and enable the couple to live in 
those conditions which are necessary for physical comfort. 
She would like for the woman to be married to a nan with a 
pleasing appearance, but in the end, a compatible mate with 
a strong character seems more desirable. Enma is fortunate 
in that she herself does not have to make any choices; Mr. 
Knightley unites all the criteria--he is financially 
well-situated, and has a pleasing appearance, a compatible 
personality, and a strong character. In addition, he and 
Emma love one another. 

Most of the considerations of marriage and marriage 
partners discussed in Emma are also discussed in Jane 
Austen's letters. Especially significant in their 
communication of Austen's ideas on marriage are five letters 
which Austen wrote to her niece fanny Knight in November of 
1814 and in February and March of 1817. Since Mansfield 
Park was published in 1814 and Emma , her next book, in 1816, 
the letters would have been written at about the time that 
Austen was writing Emma . There is much similarity between 
Austen's advice to Fanny and Emma's advice to Harriet. Thus 
the letters support the theory that the opinions expressed 


by Emma closely parallel Jane Austen's own carefully 
considered opinions at that time. 

Although Jane Austen never married, her letters do not 
suggest that Austen thought it likely that her niece would 
also remain single or that she would recommend such a course 
to Fanny. Austen seems to accept marriage as inevitable at 
some point in Fanny's future, but like Emma, she regrets the 
changes which will result from it. In her February 20, 
1817, letter to Fanny, Austen writes, "Oh! what a loss it 
will be when you are married. You are too agreeable in your 
single state, too agreeable as a niece. I shall hate you 
when your delicious play of mind is all settled down into 
conjugal and maternal affections." A few lines later she 
writes: "I only do not like you should marry anybody. And 
yet I do wish you to marry very much, because I know you 
will never be happy till you are; but the loss of a Fanny 
Knight will be never made up to me; My 'affec: Miece F. C. 
Wildman' will be but a poor substitute" ( Letters , February 
20, 1817). 

Austen's assumption that Fanny would some day marry was 
realistic and proved to be accurate. At that time few young 
women chose to remain single, for "in spite of shining 
examples of single life in every station, the unmarried 
woman, or old maid, was looked down upon with mixed pity and 
contempt" (Merryn Williams 4). The woman who did not marry 
was regarded as a failure and usually had to contend with a 


general societal lack of respect. One indication of this 
prejudice was the custom of giving married women precedence 
over the unmarried. We are reminded of this in Emma when 
Mr. Woodhouse reminds Emma, "A bride ... is always the 
first in company, let others be who they may" (280). 

Jane Austen was well aware of what life was like for 
most unmarried women. In her March 18, 1817, letter to 
Fanny, Austen wrote, "Single women have a dreadful propen- 
sity for being poor--which is one very strong argument in 
favour of Matrimony." Austen's portrayal of Hiss Bates in 
Emma suggests the kind of life a typical old maid might 
lead. Miss Bates 

enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a 
woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married. 
|_SheJ stood in the very worst predicament in the 
world for having much of the public favour; and 
she had no intellectual superiority to make 
atonement to herself, or to frighten those who 
might hate her, into outward respect. She had 
never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her 
youth had passed without distinction, and her 
middle life was devoted to the care of a failing 
mother, and the endeavour to make a small income 
go as far as possible. (21) 
The life of a single woman such as Miss Bates does not sound 
very appealing. 


Jane Austen would have been well aware that while a 
young man had several options for earning a living, a young 
woman of this social class had only two--she could write 
novels or she could become a teacher, either in a school or 
in the role of governess. In Emma , Miss Bates' niece, Jane 
Fairfax, is typical of the genteel young woman with an 
education, but no family and no financial support. Jane 
appears to have no alternative, after she decides not to 
marry Frank Churchill, except to become a governess, fate 
which she herself compares to slavery. Margaret Kirkham 
believes that in her portrayal of Jane's situation, "Jane 
Austen shows most clearly her feminist convictions, for the 
low status of governesses and the humiliations they endured 
were among the injustices which moved intelligent women most 
throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries" (132). 
Neither the portrayal of Miss Bates nor that of Jane Fairfax 
suggests that the life of a single woman was very desirable. 

However, Emma believes that her situation is very 
different from that of Hiss Bates or Jane Fairfax. She 
tells Harriet, "Fortune I do not want; employment I do not 
want; consequence I do not want" (84); therefore, since she 
has "none of the usual inducements of women to marry," Emma 
says she intends to remain single. She tells Harriet: 

I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty 
only which makes celibacy contemptible to a 
generous public! A single woman, with a very 

narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, 
old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls; 
but a single woman, of good fortune, is always 
respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant 
as anybody else. And the distinction is not quite 
so much against the candour and common sense of 
the world as appears at first; for a very 
narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, 
and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, 
and who live perforce in a very small, and 
generally very inferior, society, may well be 
illiberal and cross. (85) 
Austen's correlation between poverty and a single 
woman's status was probably based on personal experience as 
well as observations. Although her own household — Austen, 
her sister Cassandra, their mother, and Martha Lloyd, a 
cousin--had an adequate income after the death of Austen's 
father, they did not have many luxuries. Austen had very 
little money of her own until she gained a small income from 
her novels during the last years of her life. 

In his Life of Jane Austen , John Halperin suggests that 
by the time Austen was writing Emma , the money which she had 
earned from her earlier books made her feel that she 
deserved to be treated as "a woman of consequence" (272). 
This would have contributed even more to Austen's awareness 
of the position of single women in society. Halperin feels 


that Austen's satiric handling of the question of precedence 
at the Weston's party at the Crown is "Jane Austen's 
declaration of independence" ( Life of Jane Austen 272). He 
believes that Austen is expressing her own frustration with 
her own status in this scene and that there is much irony in 
the fact that Mrs. Elton, for whom precedence is terribly 
important, is vulgar and insipid, while Emma, because she is 
an unmarried woman, must come after Mrs. Elton, even though 
Emma is intelligent and cultured. By 1817 Jane Austen must 
have been well aware of the social and economic frustrations 
of single women. 

It is not surprising, therefore, that Jane Austen never 
encouraged her niece to remain single. On the other hand, 
Austen does not encourage Fanny to marry solely to avoid the 
economic hardships of being single. In a letter which she 
wrote to Fanny on November 18, 1814, Austen gave her niece 
this advice: "C J J entreat you not to commit yourself 
farther, & not to think of accepting him unless you really 
do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather 
than marrying without Affection." In another work, The 
Hatsons , Jane Austen has a young woman, Emma Watson, express 
an opinion which seems to be Austen's own when she says: 

To be so bent on marriage--to pursue a man merely 
for the sake of situation — is a sort of thing that 
shocks me; I cannot understand it. Poverty is a 
great evil, but to a woman of education and 

feeling it ought not, it cannot be the greatest--I 
would rather be a teacher at a school (and I 
can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I do 
not like. (318) 
Austen was well aware of the importance of an adequate 
income. One of the reasons she cannot encourage Fanny to 
think more seriously of marriage to "Mr. J. P." in 1814 is 
"such uncertainty as there is of when (an engagement} may be 
completed. — Years may pass, before he is Independent" 
( Letters , November 30, 1814). Then, as now, the young man's 
financial situation was often closely related to his age and 
social status. Lawrence Stone, in his study of families of 
England between 1500 and 1800, cites figures which indicate 
that the median age for marriage among small property-owners 
of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was 26 to 30 for 
men and 24 to 27 for women. This delay was necessary 
because a lengthy period of saving, or the death or 
retirement of the man's parents, was usually required before 
a couple could marry and set up their own house. Therefore, 
when Emma pointed out to Harriet that Robert Martin would 
probably not be in a financial position to marry until he 
was six years older than his present 24 years of age, and 
that when he did marry, marriage to a young woman with some 
money would still be desirable, Emma was reflecting an 
economic reality in Austen's time. 

For a woman who married wisely, marriage meant 


financial security. It also gave her the satisfaction of 
having an "establishment" of her own, a most desirable 
asset, as Emma reminds her father when she says, "You would 
not have had Miss Taylor live with us forever . . . when she 
might have a house of her own" (8). In her February 20, 
1817, letter to Fanny, a letter in which Austen discusses 
the pros and cons of Fanny's marrying a young suitor, Mr. J. 
Wildman, Austen comments: "I like Chilham Castle for you." 
In an earlier letter, Austen discusses the behavior of 
another niece, Anna, who had married Ben Lefroy in November 
of 1814. She tells Fanny: 

We have heard nothing from Anna. I trust she is 
very comfortable in her new home. Her Letters 
have been very sensible & satisfactory with parade 
of happiness, which I like them the better for.--I 
have often known young married Women write in a 
way I did not like, in that respect. ( Letters , 
November 18, 1814) 
While Austen might acknowledge that financial security 
and a home of one's own were important, she could not accept 
the idea that they were more important than other 
considerations. Perhaps her clearest portrayal of this in 
her novels is her treatment of Charlotte Lucas in Pride and 
Prejudice . Charlotte accepted the proposal of Mr. Collins 
"solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an 
establishment" (122). Although Charlotte seems "tolerably 


happy" at Hunsford when Elizabeth Bennet visits her several 
months after Charlotte's marriage (Strimpel 275), 
Elizabeth's attitude toward the marriage and Charlotte's 
situation remains one of censure. 

Austen was aware that it was not only young women who 
married for economic security and a comfortable 
establishment. In her November 21, 1808, letter to her 
sister Cassandra, Austen wrote: 

[y] ou will have heard that Hiss Sawbridge is 
married. . . .Mr. Maxwell was tutor to the young 
Gregorys — consequently they must be one of the 
happiest couples in the World, & either of them 
worthy of Envy — for she must be excessively 
in love, and he mounts from nothing to a 
comfortable Home. 
Perhaps Jane Austen's reluctance to endorse marriage 
merely for the sake of being married was the result of her 
awareness of what a woman gave up when she married. Austen 
knew that when a woman married, she gave up all control of 
her life. In Emma , we see this in Emma's initial rejection 
of the idea of marriage for herself because of her awareness 
of the changes marriage could mean in her own position. 
Since neither Mr. Woodhouse nor Miss Taylor has exercised 
any control over Emma for several years, Emma has been 
"practically the absolute monarch of her condition" (Scott 
63). Emma is well aware that "her position as mistress 


affords her a degree of social power and independence which 
will be denied in even the best marriage" (Siefert 77). 
Jane Austen, who had several married brothers, was fully 
aware of the control a husband had over his wife's life, a 
control which extended to all aspects of her life. During 
Jane Austen's lifetime, an unmarried woman had more legal 
rights than a married woman. An unmarried woman had a right 
to her own earnings and property and was a reasonably free 
agent (O'Malley 24). A married woman "could neither own 
property nor make a will, and any goods she possessed 
belonged to her husband" (O'Malley 24). After marriage the 
very being or legal existence of a woman was suspended, or 
at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the 
husband (O'Malley 22). Once married, there was virtually no 
chance of escape from the marriage for the woman. 

Marriage with a harsh and selfish man might be 
hell. The law did nothing to alleviate it or to 
countenance the wife's escape. There was no 
possibility of divorce for a virtuous woman, the 
expensive procedure of divorce by act of 
parliament being in practice only open to injured 
husbands. (O'Malley 24) 
From the day of her marriage onward the wife's body was 
bound to be at the service of her husband for his pleasure 
and for the begetting of children. For the woman this meant 
frequent pregnancy. Jane Austen, who had close ties to a 


large family, was well aware of what married women's lives 
frequently involved reqarding childbear ing. In her March 
13, 1817, letter to Fanny, Austen reminds Fanny that "by not 
beginninq the business of Mothering quite so early in life, 
you will be young in Constitution, spirits, figure & 
countenance, while Mrs. Wm. Hammond is growing old by 
confinements & nursing." In her March 23, 1817, letter to 
Fanny she comments on another niece: 

Anna has not a chance of escape; her husband 
called here the other day, and said she was pretty 
well but not equal to so long a walk; she must 
come in her Donkey Carriage . Poor Animal, she 
will be worn out before she is thirty. --I am very 
sorry for her. 
Statistical evidence suggests what a typical woman of the 
time could expect: as many as fifty percent of all the 
babies would die before they were two; one baby in every 
four would be stillborn; the woman's chances of dying in 
childbirth were not negligible and increased with every 
pregnancy; after fifteen pregnancies (which meant something 
like eight babies brought to term and safely delivered), the 
woman's chances of dying were one in two (Weldon 30). 
In the case of Fanny's possible marriage to "Mr. 
J. P.," Austen admits that that the young man would possibly 
have made a good husband. Austen lists his assets: 

His situation in life, family, friends, and his 

character — his uncommonly amiable mind, strict 
principles, just notions, good habits — all that 
you know so well how to value, all that really is 
of the first importance—everything of this nature 
pleads his cause most strongly. ( Letters , 
Novemeber 18, 1814) 
However, although Austen values such a fine young man, these 
assets do not automatically engender a recommendation that 
Fanny marry him. Fanny is advised "not to think of 
accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to 
be preferred or endured rather than marrying without 
affection" ( Letters , November 18, 1814). 

A short time later Austen writes Fanny: 

£you] must not let anything depend on my opinion. 
Your own feelings and none but your own, should 
determine such an important point. ... I am 
perfectly convinced that your present feelings 
supposing you were to marry now , would be 
sufficient for his happiness; — but when I think 
how very, very far it is from a Now, and take 
everything that may be , into consideration, I dare 
not say, "Determine to accept him." The risk is 
too great for you , unless your own Sentiments 
prompt it. — You may think me perverse perhaps; in 
my last letter I was urging everything in his 
favor, & now I am inclining the other way; but I 

cannot help it; I am at present more impressed 
with the possible Evil that may arise to you from 
engaging yourself to him--in word or mind — than 
with anything else. — When I consider how few young 
Men you have yet seen much of — how capable you are 
(yes, I do still think you very capable) of being 
really in love — and how full of temptation the 
next 6 or 7 years of your Life will probably be- 
fit is the very period of Life for the 
strongest attachments to be formed)--I cannot wish 
you with your present very cool feelings to 
devote yourself in honour to him. ( Letters , 
November 30, 1814) 
Austen's advice to her niece sounds very similar to the 
advice Emma gives Harriet when Harriet is considering Robert 
Martin's first proposal. Emma advises Harriet: 

If a woman doubts as to whether she should accept 
a man or not, she certainly ought to refuse him. 
If she can hesitate as to "Yes" she ought to say 
"No" directly. It is not a state to be safely 
entered into with doubtful feelings, with half a 
heart. (52) 
Emma believes, "A woman is not to marry a man merely because 
she is asked, or because he is attached to her" (54). 

Jane Austen may recognize the advantage of marriage, 
and of Fanny's marriage to "Mr. J. P.," but in the end she 


does not endorse it because she does not think Fanny feels 
strongly enough for the young nan. "It seems as if your 
being secure of him (as you say yourself) had made you 
Indifferent," even though, "he is, just what he ever was, 
only more evidently & uniformly devoted to you" ( Letters , 
November 18, 1814). Jane Austen recognized the importance of 
love on both sides. After assessing Fanny's behavior and 
feelings, Austen assures her niece, "You cannot be in love." 
Austen tells Fanny that earlier, when they had discussed the 
situation, "I did consider you as being attached in a 
degree," but "not so much in love as you thought yourself." 
Austen says that at that time she had considered Fanny's 
attachment to be "quite sufficient for happiness, as I had 
no doubt it would increase with opportunity" ( Letters , 
November 18, 1814). She advises Fanny not to marry the 
young man because "nothing can be compared to the misery of 
being bound without Love, bound to one, and preferring 
another" ( Letters , November 30, 1814). 

Two years later, she writes to her niece about another 
suitor, "By your decription he cannot be in love with you, 
however he may try at it, & I could not wish the match 
unless there were a great deal of Love on his side" 
( Letters , March 13, 1817). She advises her niece: 

Do not be in a hurry; depend upon it, the right 
Man will come at last; you will in the course of 
the next two or three years, meet with somebody 

more generally unexceptionable than anyone you 
have yet known, who will love you as warmly as 
ever He_ did, and who will so completely attach 
you, that you never really loved before. 
( Letters , March 13, 1817) 
Although she considered love of the mate to be 
important, Austen could not wholly endorse marriage either 
for love alone or if the couple was not "in love." Austen's 
attitude is typical of her time, a time when "almost 
everyone agreed . . . that both physical desire and romantic 
love were unsafe bases for an enduring marriage, since both 
were violent mental disturbances which would inevitably be 
of short duration" (Stone 272). Jane Austen's conflict 
between marrying for love or marriage for financial and 
social security may be due to changes in attitudes toward 
marriage and the family which were taking place during her 
lifetime. According to Stone's research, Austen grew up 
during the last years of a period that saw "greater stress 
on internal bonding" and a "marked reversal of the previous 
trend toward domestic patriarchy," particularly among the 
gentry and bourgeoisie (655). Since a patriarchy sees the 
forces of love and power as antithetical, true heterosexual 
love is seen as subversive because it involves freedom of 
choice. The patriarchal system sees love as a means of 
gaining power over someone or falling under someone's power 
(Smith 14). Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the 


patriarchy began to lose power, and "a new recognition of 
the need for personal autonomy, and a new respect for the 
individual pursuit of happiness" began to emerge (Stone 
273). This resulted in a shift toward mate selection based 
more on free choice than on parental decision and "as much 
on expectations of lasting mutual affection as on 
calculations of an increase in money, status, or power" 
(656). The resulting new family type carried "a much 
greater load of emotional and sexual commitment"; it was 
"more conjugal and less kin and community oriented, . . . 
less patriarchial and authoritarian" than the one it 
succeeded ( 657 ) . 

Thus, in Austen's time, even though the parents among 
the higher social levels were still somewhat active 
operators in the marriage market, the daughters had gained a 
greater degree of freedom in their choice of a mate. The 
young woman was likely, however, to feel the conflict 
between two different sets of values. As Selma James points 
out, the society was beginning to accept, even promote, 
romantic love. As a result, a young woman was encouraged 
not to be materialistic, but to marry the man she loved even 
if it meant that she would be a pauper. But, on the other 
hand, many a young woman knew that if she followed this 
advice and married a man she loved who had little money, her 
family might suffer, and her first obligation was, after 
all, to her family. Such a young woman would feel that 


there could be "no morality based on the selfish 
consideration of QherJ own feelings to the exclusion of 
their effect on others" (36). 

In Summary, Jane Austen believed that love was a 
necessary but not a sufficient condition for marriage 
(Lerner 27). Although she knew that some people need to 
marry in order to survive, Austen was critical of marriages 
entered into merely for economic security. Austen realized 
that married women often led unenviable lives and they gave 
up a great deal of personal freedom, especially if their 
husbands were tyrants or if they experienced frequent 
pregnancies. In Emma , Austen gives us a heroine who is 
financially secure without marriage and who has a position 
of honor and power in her father's house. She may love Mr. 
Knightley, but even if they don't marry, they seem likely to 
continue the close relationship they have had for several 
years. So why does Jane Austen have Emma marry Mr. 

Since there is little evidence that Jane Austen 
endorsed marriage as "the wonan's sacrosanct destiny" 
(Brown, "Jane Austen and the Feminist Tradition" 337), it 


seems necessary to examine the function of the marriage in 
the context of the novel in order to try to find a 
satisfactory answer to the question just posed. One 
possible explanation of why Austen has Emma marry Mr. 
Knightley is simply that the comic form Austen uses requires 
the marriage. The formula of comedy requires that by the 
end of the comedy, the comedy of errors be played out, all 
the mistakes in identity be corrected, and each person be 
placed in his or her proper role. At the end of a comedy 
each person is accorded the measure of happiness it is his 
or her nature to enjoy. The heroine is expected to gain the 
love of a good man, the security of a desirable marriage, 
and the recognition of personal worth which she deserves. 
Therefore, since Mr. Knightley and Emma are "the characters 
who most deserve to enjoy and are best able to appreciate 
one another's qualities, qualities which include their 
differences," their marriage is what is required by the 
comic genre (Kissane 182). 

This explanation, however, is satisfying only if one 
finds the matter of form to be the primary factor in 
deciding how the story should end. If one gives attention 
to Austen's concern with realism as well as her attention to 
form, the formal order is much less satisfying. Since, as 
Mathilde Strimpel points out, "it is in the nature of comedy 
to mete out punishment less than commensurate with the 
crime" (290), the comic ending does not satisfy the demands 


of those who believe that the ending ought to be a closer 
reflection of "reality." Therefore, it is not surprising 
that some readers are dissatisfied with the marriage of Emma 
and Mr. Knightley. At least three critics, P. J. M. Scott, 
Julia Brown, and Marvin Mudrick, believe that Emma receives 
a better reward than she deserves. Scott believes that Emma 
should "suffer larger and less fleeting penalties for her 
generally delinquent attitudes" (68). He believes: "'The 
perfect marriage 1 comes as yet another glittering prize in a 
continuous career of self-absorption, destructive attitudes 
and acts" (70), and that the ending is softened and all 
comes out well, "so that Emma will not seem guilty of being 
the really ruinous creature she is" (72). "Not only does 
the heroine achieve wishes beyond her deserts," Scott 
writes, "we are asked to believe that she knows how to enjoy 
them aright, the first seven-eighths of the book having 
shown just the reverse" (71). Brown also feels that Emma is 
not punished sufficiently for her misconduct and that Emma's 
inner nature never alters. She says, "Protean, elusive, 
capable of true goodness and deliberate cruelty, she is what 
she is — a reservoir of indeterminacy" (106). Brown believes 
that at the end of the novel: "Emma is still Emma, and Mr. 
Knightley is still Mr. Knightley. . . . The only real 
difference is the knowledge of love between then, and the 
willingness to be influenced by that other that, as always, 
is central to Jane Austen's conception of love" (109). 


Unlike Brown, Mudrick will accept the idea that Emma has 
undergone some changes, but he suggests that the changes are 
only temporary. He believes that Emma has acknowledged 
defeat and is now "willing to be dominated by a man of whom 
her intelligence and her snobbery can approve" (200); he 
attributes this, however, to the fact that Emma's flood of 
repentance has not yet subsided (200). Because he sees no 
sign that Emma's motives have changed, that there is any 
difference in her except her relief and temporary awareness, 
Mudrick expects Emma to revert to her former ways (200). He 
says: "It is hard to think of Emma undominant for any 
length of time" (200) . 

I believe that these critics are putting too much 
emphasis on the novel's realistic elements and showing too 
little regard for its theme. They are so concerned that the 
happy ending should conform precisely to the merits and 
demerits of the characters that they undervalue Austen's 
depiction of the maturation of Emma. They are disregarding 
what Emma experiences and what she learns as she gains 
maturity. Joseph Duffy succinctly describes the theme of 
the novel as "Emma's passage from innocence to 
experience — from dreams to consciousness" (40); the novel 
depicts, in Duffy's words, "the awakening of a normal, 
intelligent young woman to the possibilities of physical 
love and the direction, often chaotic, taken by her 
curiosity in an effort at discovering that love" (40). 


Emma's initial difficulties stem from her lack of 
involvement with reality, her disengagement from life. Emma 
must discover who and what she is; she receives an education 
in judgment, in right awareness, and in emotions (Bradbury 
61). The appropriateness of her marriage to Mr. Knightley 
should, therefore, be examined in relationship to Emma's 
changing attitude toward marriage as she matures and learns 
about love; it is not simply a part of the comic formula. 

At the beginning of the novel, Emma is ignoring her 
physical maturity and increasing sexual needs. Emma's 
initial rejection of the idea of marriage for herself is 
based on an awareness that marriage would mean the loss of 
her personal freedom. Emma, who enjoys her position of 
power as mistress of her father's home, realizes that 
marriage would mean submitting to the authority of a 
husband, and Emma is "much more attracted to her 
self-indulgent spinsterhood" (Butler 252). As James Boyd 
White explains: "She has engaged her powerful feelings and 
imagination in trying to maintain a child's paradise, a 
timeless world in which she is a princess beyond compare" 

Emma's initial interest in finding a husband for 
Harriet is, in reality, an attempt to gain romantic 
experiences by proxy. Emma is seeking a vicarious 
relationship through Harriet; therefore, the men Emma 
considers as possible husbands for Harriet must also be 


possible husbands for Emma herself. Emma discourages 
Harriet's interest in Robert Martin because such an 
involvement would be contrary to Emma's interests — if 
Harriet were to accept Robert Martin's proposal, Harriet 
would not have relationships with other young men for Emma 
to experience vicariously. Alex Page suggests that from a 
psychological perspective such behavior on Emma's part is 
not abnormal for "a young woman on the threshold of physical 
love," who is both terrified by, and attracted to, sex 
(571). He believes that it is usual for a girl in such an 
"androgynous state" to want "to stay outside but close up 
(in that order) to satisfy her curiosity, to learn, and to 
be ready when Mr. Right is discovered" (563). 

Harriet allows herself to be persuaded to reject Robert 
Martin's proposal, because she is willing to accept Emma's 
conviction that Mr. Elton would be a suitable husband for 
her and that he has fallen in love with her. Both Emma and 
Harriet are hurt when Mr. Elton reveals that he was 
interested in Emma, not Harriet. Harriet is heartbroken for 
a time and Emma is sorry that she caused her friend such 
misery. Emma is forced to conclude that she has made a 
mistake, that she should not have tried to foster a match 
between Harriet and Mr. Elton, but she will not give up the 
idea of finding a husband for Harriet. The relationship of 
Harriet and Mr. Elton, even though it does not end happily, 
is important to Emma's self-education. 


Emma modifies her ideas of a desirable marriage. She 
had considered the marriage of Harriet and Mr. Elton to be a 
possibility because she believed that love had the power to 
induce a man such as Mr. Elton to forget Harriet's 
illegitimate birth and uncertain social status. Mr. Elton's 
rejection of Harriet and subsequent, rapid engagement and 
marriage to Augusta Hawkins, with her dowry of ten thousand 
pounds, teaches Emma the importance of economic and social 
considerations. After the Eltons' marriage, Emma seems, for 
a time, to have adopted Mr. Elton's mercantilistic approach. 
For example, in the following passage she considers the 
economic and social advantages of a marriage to Frank 
Churchill and ignores any consideration of emotions such as 
love . 

She had frequently thought — especially since his 
father's marriage with Miss Taylor — that if she 
were to marry, he was the very person to suit her 
in age, character and condition. He seemed by 
this connection between families, quite to 
belong to her. She could not but suppose it to be 
a match that everybody who knew them must think 
of. (118-19) 
When Frank does appear on the scene, he seems to be all 
that Emma had dreamed he would be, and, for a time, she is 
pleased to think that she may be in love with him. Emma's 
feelings of possibly being in love with Frank are "a state 


of mind, the titillating effect of which she analyzes, 
probes, and extends in economical proportions" (Duffy 49). 
She is fascinated by what she may be feeling, but she does 
not want to become too emotionally involved. She thinks: 
Every consideration of the subject, in short, 
makes me thankful that my happiness is not more 
deeply involved. — I shall do very well again after 
a little while — and then, it will be a good thing 
over; for they say everybody is in love once in 
their lives, and I shall have been let off easily. 
The reader, and eventually Emma herself, realizes that 
"being in love" with Frank was, in reality, just a game Emma 
was playing with herself, just a mental exercise. 

Emma's perception of marriage must undergo yet another 
change before she attains a mature, realistic view of 
marriage. She has moved from an awareness that the emotions 
are not to be ignored to a pragmatic acceptance of the 
considerations of wealth and status. But neither would 
provide a satisfactory basis for the kind of marriage Emma 
would desire. Emma must learn that marriage involves even 
more. This does not happen until Emma recognizes her 
emotional involvement with her "Mr. Right," Mr. Knightley. 
However, before Emma can conceive of the possibility of 
marriage to Mr. Knightley, her perception of him must 
change, and she must recognize her feelings for him as love. 


At the beginning of the novel she sees hin as "a loveable 
and commanding fixture in her life — a private idol or 
household god" (Duffy 44). Emma and Mr. Knightley have 
retained the relationship which was established when Emma 
was a child; therefore, it is not surprising that "neither 
is able to contemplate the other as a possible lover" 
(Monaghan, Jane Austen: Structure and Social Vision 115). 
When Emma does experience some awareness of her feeling for 
Mr. Knightley, she tries to attribute her emotional 
responses to their "brother-sister" relationship. Hot until 
she is confronted with the possibility of Mr. Knightley's 
marrying Harriet Smith or Jane Fairfax does Emma finally 
recognize the depth of her own love for him. At this point 
she reaches a mature perception of what the relationship 
between a husband and wife ought to be; she understands what 
marriage really involves and begins to desire it for 

It is not surprising that Emma would have difficulty in 
seeing marriage as a desirable goal since she does not have 
any model of satisfying marriages. In Emma , there is "a 
virtual absence of any perception of marriage per se as a 
fulfilling experience" (Brown, "The Business of Marrying and 
Mothering" 28). Communication, respect, and affection are 
all necessary if the marriage of Emma and Mr. Knightley is 
to be more satisfying than the other marriages in the novel. 
The other marriages seem to lack one or more of these 


qualities. Her marriage might do for Isabella, but Isabella 
is "the conventional devoted wife" — engrossed in her family, 
coddling her children, humouring a taciturn husband, having 
no will or opinions of her own (Strimpel 292). Emma's 
personality is very different from that of her sister. 
Neither is Emma like the quiet, docile Anne Taylor, who is 
well aware of her good fortune in marrying at all, 
especially a man with the wealth and geniality of Mr. 
Weston. Mr. Weston may be (as John Knightley describes him) 
"rather an easy, cheerful man, than a man of strong 
feelings; Lyhqj takes things as he finds them, and makes 
enjoyment of them somehow or other" (96), but Emma decides 
that these qualities have a cumulatively irritating effect 
on her and that she would never be happy if married to a man 
like Mr. Weston. 

If she had been willing to settle for only economic 
security and status, Emma might have considered Frank 
Churchill more acceptable as a marriage partner. Like his 
father's, Frank's personality is a major weakness as far as 
Emma is concerned. Joseph Duffy aptly describes Frank as 
"an archetype of all clever young men who live by their wits 
and their charm, whose amiability and good looks are their 
chief commodities, whose end in life is pleasure, and who do 
not flinch at swindle in order to attain this end"; he is "a 
paragon of confidence men" (48-49). Frank's selfish, 
childish nature leaves little doubt that his marriage to 


Jane Fairfax will not be a serene one. Jane is marrying a 
man who is morally and intellectually her inferior; and 
while Jane clearly loves Frank and there is no indication by 
Austen that the marriage is likely to fail, we wonder how 
happy Jane will be. We share Mr. Knightley's reaction; he 
predicted, "Jane, Jane, you will be a miserable creature" 
(426). How unhappily Austen herself viewed the marriage is 
suggested by her telling her family that Jane Fairfax would 
have died only nine or ten years after her marriage to Frank 
Churchill (Austen-Leigh 307). 

Emma also could not use the Eltons' marriage as a 
model, even though both Mr. and Mrs. Elton might believe 
that they have an "ideal" marriage. Mrs. Elton might 
represent herself as a heroine "willing to sacrifice the 
delights of Maple Grove for love, and Elton as a frantic, 
despairing lover" (Moler 177), but Emma is not deceived. 
Emma knows that in reality Mrs. Elton married for an 
establishment and Mr. Elton was motivated by pique and by 
Mrs. Elton's dowry of ten thousand pounds. The Eltons might 
suit each other perfectly but the novel makes it very clear 
that they are both "affected, mercenary, vulgar, and 
aggressive" people (Barbara Hardy 33). 

The marriage of Emma and Mr. Knightley is appropriate 
when it is seen as the final evidence of Emma's maturation 
as well as the ending required by the conic form. Emma's 
experiences, observations, and maturation have led her to 


realize what marriage to the right man might have to offer 
her. The marriage is Emma's reward for the changes she 
undergoes, changes which will be permanent because for Emma, 
"the discovery of sexual love is the beginning of true 
goodness, since it removes her inclination to have fantasies 
about and to manipulate other people" (Uiseman 15). 

Emma's relationship with Mr. Knightley may seem 
strange to modern readers. He expect a more passionate 
involvement from the hero and heroine of a "love story." 
However, such expectations may reflect only modern 
perceptions of love; we expect an emphasis on emotions 
whereas Emma and Mr. Knightley seem to stress their pupil 
and teacher roles. Juliet McMaster suggests that this is 
because Jane Austen saw the "ideal" love differently. She 
believes that Austen was committed to "intelligent love," of 
which the deepest and truest relationship between human 
beings is pedagogic; such a relationship is based on giving 
and receiving knowledge about right conduct, for formation 
of one person's character by another, and the acceptance of 
another's guidance on one's growth ( Jane Austen on Love 43). 
McMaster suggests that Austen felt that the pedagogic 
relationship enabled the hero and heroine to respond to each 
other, fully and consciously, to come to share their 
experiences, their feelings, and themselves, so that they 
could be wholly united. Their marriage celebrates "the 
achieved integration of head and heart that is represented 


by pupil and teacher coming to loving accord" ( Jane Austen 
on Love 45) 

The relationship of Emma and Mr. Knightley may not be 
as strictly pedagogical as Monaster suggests, however. John 
Hagan notes, "There is a much greater kinship in fallibility 
between Mr. Knightley and Emma than our initial impression 
of them as wise mentor and foolish pupil would suggest" 
(225). In the long run, the pupil acquires fuller 
self-knowledge than the mentor. There are also times when 
Emma's perceptions are more accurate than Mr. Knightley's. 
As Malcolm Bradbury points out, "Emma is not always in 
error; she is indeed right on nearly all the occasions where 
she is not given to the faults. . . of whimsy, snobbery, or 
prejudgment" (65). Mr. Knightley is also a faulty mentor 
since he is "as ignorant as Emma of his own feelings and, 
though many of his criticisms of her are just in themselves, 
he is often motivated by unconscious jealousy and envy of 
Frank Churchill" (Kirkham 133). Margaret Kirkham further 
suggests that Austen restricted Emma's faults to "relatively 
minor matters," so that she was "essentially right in her 
judgments and feelings on a great many important matters" 
(131). In addition, Emma's maturation seems to have relied 
more on her experiences and her evaluations than it did on 
Mr. Knightley's wisdom and advice. 

Even though Emma and Mr. Knightley may have thought 
that they had an ideal pedagogic relationship, the modern 


reader may interpret it differently. In the proposal scene 
(and also during much of Emma's previous maturation) there 
is little evidence that Mr. Knightley is aware of the 
changes in Emma's thinking. Hagan points out: "There is 
not the slightest suggestion in the scene that the proposal 
is contingent in any way upon his approval of [Emma ' sj 
growth" (560). Mr. Knightley's decision, "far from being 
the result of the cool deliberation of a reasoned 
recognition and acceptance of her maturation, springs 
entirely from impulse" (560). Mr. Knightley says that he 
loves Emma "in spite of her unlovable behavior, warts, and 
all" (Bennett 249). 

Emma's experiences enable her to gain wisdom, thereby 
making her more nearly the equal of Mr. Knightley. This new 
equality serves as the basis for open communication, mutual 
respect, and deep affection. These qualities are 
significant, LeRoy Smith says, because: 

Austen insists that the happiness of the 
individual requires both self-knowledge, 
represented by the discovery and integration 
within the self of the range of possibilities of 
human behavior, and concord between the sexes, 
represented by the dissolution of artificial 
social and psychological barriers. (142) 
Emma's experiences and increasing maturity also affect 
her relationship with people other than Mr. Knightley. As 


John Halperin points out, Emma must come to realize that, 
like most people, she is capable of being deceived, of 
making mistakes in judgment, and of perceiving incorrectly 
("The Victorian Novel and Jane Austen" 21); such 
realizations lead Emma to a better understanding of herself, 
an understanding which helps to prepare the way for a better 
understanding of others. An important part of Emma's growth 
is her increasing involvement with those around her, an 
involvement which adds a social dimension to Emma's 
maturity. Emma's conscious decision to marry Mr . Knightley 
indicates her mature willingness to involve herself in her 
society in a fully human way (Seifert 80). Emma presents a 
"unifying view that combines the achievement of self-hood by 
the individual with an accommodation of the legitimate 
demands of self and society" (Smith 25). 

All of Austen's novels contain an emphasis on the place 
of the individual in society. Austen emphasizes the 
importance of marriage as a public act, which is why she 
does not condone the secret engagement of Frank Churchill 
and Jane Fairfax. Austen's message is that the public has a 
right to know of such engagements because of the possible 
public and social consequences. In a paternalistic society, 
who marries whom affects not only their families but also 
the neighborhood; thus this type of society placed a heavy 
emphasis on the individual's obligation to recognize the 
needs of others and to strive to meet those needs (Monaghan, 


Structure and Social Vision 2). Mary Poovey describes the 
marriages of the heroines of Austen's novels as "the ideal 
paradigm of the most perfect fusion between the individual 
and society" (203). When seen in this way, the marriage of 
Emma and Mr. Knightley also seems an apppropriate conclusion 
to the novel. 

Nevertheless, the ending still leaves some readers 
feeling uneasy. Bernard Paris, for example, will accept that 
Emma has changed permanently. However, he does not feel 
that Emma's assumption of the role of Mr. Knightley's wife 
is a change for the better. In his psychological analysis 
of Emma, Paris concludes that Emma's marriage to Mr. 
Knightley "signifies not so much an entrance into maturity 
as a regression to childish dependency" (65). As he sees 
it, Emma undergoes a gradual change in attitude toward 
herself from pride to humility, from self-aggrandizement to 
self-castigation, from self-delusion to self-knowledge. He 
concedes that Emma learns from her experiences and makes a 
better adaption to her society; she discovers the 
independence of external reality and gains a knowledge of 
her inability to control it; she is also forced to give up 
her narcissistic claims and to recognize the immorality of 
many of her attitudes. However, Paris feels that Emma does 
not gain a mature, independent self-confidence. He notes 
that at the beginning of the novel Emma is an unusual figure 
in her world, but that "by the end she has the feminine 


personality which was most commonly induced and most 
strongly approved by the society of her time" (76-77). 
Paris is also critical of Mr. Knightley as the proper 
husband for Emma. He feels that Mr. Knightley will, indeed, 
keep her wayward impulses under control, but he will not 
help her to grow. Paris does not feel that marriage to Mr. 
Knightley will allow Emma to live up to her full potential. 

Other critics are uncomfortable with Jane Austen's 
writing technique at the end of the novel. They have noted 
that Jane Austen seems to step away at the climax of the 
novel, that as she reaches the point at which a great 
romantic scene is imminent, she enters the novel, almost in 
her own person. For example, T. Mildred Wherritt says, 
"After Austen has built up the suspense to the point at 
which the hero is ready to propose, she generalizes, 
paraphrases and comments on the proposal, but she does not 
render the scene in dialogue or direct description" (229). 
This has the effect of suddenly placing the author between 
the reader and the story. 

Some critics are satisfied that this intrusion is 
considered part of the author's technique. Rachel 
Brownstein, for example, feels that the distance at this 
point is a conscious choice on the part of the author rather 
than an indication of artistic weakness, and that "it makes 
our pleasure" (85). Janis Stout concurs; she believes that 
the entrance of the author at this point was intended to 


"suspend the dramatization of events leading up to the 
romantic climax, a presentation developed largely through 
close-grained dialogue, and to shift instead to indirect 
discourse, or more often, narrative summary" (317). She 
believes that by doing this, Austen "renews her character- 
istic reliance on generalization, a practice which stresses 
the shared, common qualities of the characters' experiences 
and which engages our participation or assent as readers 
while disengaging us from highly charged particulars" (317). 
Stout adds: 

The practice is thematically right, converging as 
it does both Jane Austen's faith in the continuity 
between the individual's personal interests and 
those of society and her stress on the moral value 
of a widened perspective, even as it is 
dramatically disappointing to the emotionally 
involved reader. (317) 
Since dialogue is Austen's normal means for revealing 
her characters, the lack of dialogue at the denouement 
denies the reader a realistic look at her hero and heroine 
at the culmination of their romance. Stout defends Austen's 
practice by saying that Austen purposely contrasts the 
nearly speechless love and proposal scenes against the sheer 
spokenness of sequences involving other matters (321). She 

When Austen's characters most need to communicate 

with one another, they dare not place their 
confidence in the primary medium of communication, 
conversation. What is more, she doubts the 
integrity of those who are able to remain fluent, 
flowery, or verbose in such situations. (323) 
Some critics believe that Austen purposely resorts to 
obviously contrived endings because she does not take the 
romance seriously. Wherritt suggests, "For her the 
conventions and ideas of the romantic novels are materials 
to be satirized and burlesqued" (242). Margaret Kirkham 
would agree with this; she feels that the endings were 
written in such a way as to direct readers " not to mistake 
what is represented for a straightforward imitation of life 
itself" (81) . She says: 

The final precipitation of the marriage by Mr. 
Woodhouse's anxieties about a local poultry thief, 
is plainly intended to be taken lightly. While it 
fits perfectly with his character, the author 
expects us to enjoy the joke as she finds a piece 
of comic business without which the book cannot be 
ended. I think that the reader is also supposed 
to see by this time what the schematic structure 
has been, and how an unlikely, even an absurd, 
plot has been worked upon so that it does not 
violate nature or probability. At this point, if 
not before, we are to stand back from the fiction 

and its characters — to experience the mild 
alienation which results from being shown the 
constructional nuts and bolts — and, as we see that 
there was never any possibility of things working 
out in any other way, to ask what this particular 
handling of stock situation shows us about it. 
Jane Austen intends the marriage to function as a 
literary convention which symbolizes the successful 
maturation of the relationship between the hero and heroine. 
The marriage of Emma and Mr. Knightley was not intended to 
suggest that there would be "perfect happiness" for Emma and 
Mr. Knightley in the future. She did not intend to present 
the marriage as a guarantee of happiness. Jane Austen knew 
that in the world of reality 

there are no ideal couples, no instant 
understandings, no shapely resolutions. . . . 
There are no perfect lovers either. One of the 
continuous concerns of her novels is to expose 
those who think, or pretend to think, that there 
are. And if there are no perfect couples, there 
are also no perfect endings. (Morgan, In the 
Meantime 17 ) 
But her stories are not required to be entirely consistent 
with reality. She knew that, whether she personally 
endorsed the institution of marriage or not, the comic form, 


the story's theme, and the romance plot all demanded that 
the story end with a happy marriage. 

We may recall again the question with which we began, 
Emma asking her father, "My dear papa, you are no friend of 
matrimony and therefore why should you be so anxious to pay 
your respects to a bride?" (265), and we might ask Jane 
Austen, "You have no delusions about marriage and what it 
means for a woman's life and freedom, so why do you have 
Emma marry Mr. Knightley?" I believe that she sanctions the 
marriage for the same reason that Mr. Woodhouse has when he 
pays due respects to the bride, even though he personally is 
appalled by the idea of marriage. No reader should believe 
that Austen was unaware of the problems in marriage and of 
the unlikelihood of a perfect marriage. The marriage of 
Emma and Mr. Knightley, however, is her tribute to the 
couple's mature relationship and to the endorsement it 
signifies of the social order. 



The young women who are the focus of this study would have 
belonged to a "middling" class; they were neither high nor 
low, neither the rulers nor the ruled. While the situation 
of such women may represent the situation of only a minority 
of women in the early 1800's, it is, nevertheless, 
significant. The values reflected are those of a class 
which was just beginning to increase rapidly in numbers. 
The lives of most of Austen's female characters are typical 
of the lives which more and more women aspired to have. 


Enna (London: Oxford UP, 1933), 265. All page references 

to Austen's novels are to the Chapman editions: The Novels 
of Jane Austen , (London: Oxford UP, 1933). All future 
references will be included in the text. 


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Vol. IV - Emma 

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Jane Austen's Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and 
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Nicolson, 1977. 





B.S., Concordia Teachers College, 1970 
M.L.S., Emporia State University, 1972 


submitted in partial fulfillment of the 
requirements for the degree 

College of Arts and Sciences 

Manhattan, Kansas 


As is true of all Jane Austen's novels, marriage is at 
the core of Emma . The novel's ending, with its three 
marriages, and its presentations of the alternatives to 
marriage for a young woman of the "middle" class, would seem 
to suggest that the novel is a tract urging all to marry. 
However, the novel's heroine has no economic or social 
motives to marry, and the marriages shown or described in 
the novel provide little incentive for Emma to marry. Why, 
then, does Emma marry Mr. Knightley? The answer is first 
sought in the novel itself, in what Emma herself thinks and 
says about marriages in general, possible marriage partners, 
the marriages of others, and what she would want in her own 
marriage if she were to marry. Emma's ideas are compared 
with those of Jane Austen as revealed in her letters, 
particularly five letters written to her niece Fanny at 
approximately the same time Austen was writing Emma . More 
significant to the novel than Austen's or Emma's personal 
opinions of marriage, however, is the relationship of the 
marriage of Emma and Mr. Knightley to the theme of the 
novel. The marriage is appropriate as the ending of a 
comedy (which Emma is since it ends with a resolution of 
conflict), but it is even more appropriate as Emma's reward 
for what she has become. Emma's experiences have prepared 
her to take her proper role in society, that of a mature 
woman, the wife of a man who will contribute to the 
continuation of that society.